Global Swing States: Deepening Partnerships with India and Indonesia

Global Swing States
Deepening Partnerships with India and Indonesia

by Ted Osius
November 6, 2013

Drawing lessons from a decade of partnership-building with India and Indonesia—Asia’s most populous democracies—this essay examines ways to deepen those partnerships and describes their importance to the U.S.



As the global center of gravity shifts toward Asia, strengthening U.S. partnerships with the region’s largest democracies becomes ever more critical. The security, diplomatic, and economic interests of the U.S., India, and Indonesia increasingly converge. All three Indo-Pacific powers share concerns about a rising China and the need to preserve a liberal regional and global order. With strong traditions of nonalignment, India and Indonesia are unlikely to take direction and conform their policies to those of the U.S., even when Washington is willing and able to pay a high price. But by following a few guidelines, the U.S. can now step up collaboration with these democracies on key challenges. On some endeavors—educational exchanges, private-sector engagement, health, and environmental cooperation—governments need not carry the greatest burden, though they can help clear a path to success.

  • U.S. economic engagement with both India and Indonesia is below its potential. With regard to India, Washington should establish an ambitious ten-year “New Framework for U.S.-India Economic Cooperation” and synchronize trade policy with its strategic priorities for the Indo-Pacific. With regard to Indonesia, the U.S. should deepen economic ties through direct flights and infrastructure and energy investment.
  • India and Indonesia should honor their G-20 trade and investment commitments.
  • Enhancing people-to-people collaboration is critical for deepening U.S. partnerships with these key swing states. The U.S. should work to boost Indian and Indonesian educational exchanges in order to enhance mutual understanding and strengthen each country’s capacity to address today’s complex challenges.

As the global economy’s center of gravity shifts more decidedly toward Asia, partnerships with the region’s most populous democracies are becoming increasingly critical to the United States. India and Indonesia are not U.S. allies, nor are they likely to become ones. With strong traditions of nonalignment, the world’s largest and third-largest democracies are unlikely to take direction from the United States and conform their policies to its wishes, even when the United States is willing and able to pay a high price for their support. With growing economies, these two nations do not want donor-client relationships but rather equal partnerships. Early in her tenure as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton provided a clear rationale for building such partnerships with emerging democracies, including India and Indonesia. She said, “These states are vital to achieving solutions to the shared problems and advancing our priorities—nonproliferation, counterterrorism, economic growth, climate change, among others.” [1] To advance its interests with key global swing states, the United States should take a long-term approach and show respect for its democratic partners while working with them to promote common interests.

In a report entitled “Global Swing States: Brazil, India, Indonesia, Turkey, and the Future of International Order,” Daniel Kliman and Richard Fontaine make a compelling argument for prioritizing and deepening U.S. engagement with leading democracies. [2] Just as Mitt Romney and Barack Obama focused their resources on key states in the 2012 election, so the United States should focus its diplomatic resources on those nations that will make the biggest difference in shaping the kind of world we leave for future generations. Kliman and Fontaine urge Washington to focus on four states that—along with established powers such as the United States, China, and Japan—will shape the future if they “swing” in the direction of a liberal international order that values democracy, human rights, free trade, and nonproliferation: Brazil, India, Indonesia, and Turkey. These states require the United States’ sustained attention and a healthy allotment of limited resources.

As a senior U.S. diplomat who helped develop partnerships with India and Indonesia, I wish to offer seven brief lessons from the past decade that will show how the United States and these partners built trust and laid a foundation for further engagement. I will then look forward to what the United States can do next in the areas of political-security, trade and economic, and people-to-people ties to deepen its partnerships with these two key swing states. The lessons of the past and my prescriptions for deepening relations suggest that such partnerships must be wide-ranging and comprehensive to endure.


What lessons did the United States learn while developing new, productive partnerships with the swing states India and Indonesia? How did it create trust and establish the foundations for further engagement? This section examines the history and dynamics of these partnerships and draws seven lessons to guide future efforts to deepen relationships with these important swing states.

Lesson 1: Unpack Historical Baggage

In both countries, building trust required clearing away obstacles from the past. The United States and India were on opposite sides during the Cold War. Then, in 1998, India defied the international community by testing a nuclear weapon. Starting from that low point in their relationship, New Delhi and Washington signaled their intent to engage through a series of dialogues between Strobe Talbott and Jaswant Singh. Later, during the George W. Bush administration, the two sides developed a civil-nuclear initiative to end India’s nuclear isolation and bring the country into the global nonproliferation system.

By contrast, the United States and Indonesia were security partners during the Cold War. They had a falling out, however, during East Timor’s quest for independence toward the end of the Suharto regime. In 2005 the United States re-engaged with Indonesia’s military and, five years later, with its special forces, which had been isolated following human rights abuses in the late 1990s. In both cases, progress in other areas would not have been possible without these initiatives—the civil-nuclear agreement with India and the re-establishment of security ties with Indonesia—each requiring a U.S. administration to stand up to strong and vocal domestic constituencies and expend political capital with Congress.

These efforts also compelled Indian and Indonesian leaders to take significant risks. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh gambled his future on the civil-nuclear initiative’s success. He faced heavy resistance from the…


[1] Hillary Rodham Clinton, “Foreign Policy Address to the Council on Foreign Relations,” U.S. Department of State, July 15, 2009,

[2] Daniel M. Kliman and Richard Fontaine, “Global Swing States: Brazil, India, Indonesia, Turkey and the Future of International Order,” Center for a New American Security and German Marshall Fund of the United States, November 2012,

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